Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Contemporary Fantasy

By definition, a CF sets the mundanity of the present day in clear opposition to the fantasy premise. A CF is thus a Crosshatch in which radically different realms co-exist, or a Portal fantasy in which transition between two realms occurs regularly, or a Gnostic Fantasy in which the mundane is merely an appearance laid over a higher spiritual truth, or a Fantasy of History in which the workings of the mundane world are other than they appear and its real history is not that recorded, or an Instauration Fantasy in which the mundanity of the contemporary is changing into something other and wonderful – or indeed any combination of these. It may well further include revelation of hidden truths about the working of the apparently mundane world such as Wainscot societies, Pariah Elites or Secret Guardians. Many texts can be described simultaneously as CF and as Urban Fantasy.

The term is best used to describe fantasies written from about the end of the 1960s – Peter S Beagle's Lila the Werewolf (1969; 1974 chap) is a locus classicus – which represent a conscious return to the contemporary world (and usually to its Cities) in a gesture of the imagination which might be called a colonizing move: a colonization from the past, from the realms of the American Gothic, from the exotic. Earlier examples – like the occult thrillers of Charles Williams – share a similar movement of opposition to generally accepted mundane values, which is why they enjoyed revival in the late 1960s, but these were for the most part isolated sports.

CFs typically do not rest easy in the contemporary world which they have colonized. In Emma Bull's War for the Oaks (1987), for example, the mundane city is experienced as both home and as constraint, and the incursion of Faerie is both an estrangement from home and a liberation from constraint. CF always sets up dichotomies of values and tries to reconcile them; at its best, it does so with subtlety and complexity. Whether the outcome is choice between values or their reconciliation, the dominant mood of closure is almost always in some sense return.

Perhaps because the CF represents an action of colonizing, of making home exotic or making the exotic into a place where home can be refound, it tends to be full of the paraphernalia of modern life. Though the novels of Stephen King are more readily described in Horror terms, their cultish obsession with minutiae like brand-names and song titles is typical of this process; making particular, through examples, the consensual mundane world is also a process whereby the fantastic can be authenticated.

CF is perhaps also the branch of fantasy that has learnt most from Magic Realism; the effect of this authenticating process is to make the incursions of the wild more immediate and more involving. When, as often, CF deals with contemporary issues, it does so directly, not merely by analogy. The effect of the fantasy elements in Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994), in the short fiction of Lucius Shepard or in the graphic novels scripted by Neil Gaiman is to heighten our response to the actually existing discourses in politics, perhaps especially sexual politics, to which these works specifically refer. [JC/RK]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.